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Arms, Allies, and the Horror in Syria

Last year, the United States okayed a weapons shipment from Qatar to Libyan rebels. Now the New York Times is reporting that some of these weapons fell into the hands of Islamist militants:

“The weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilizing force since the fall of the Qaddafi government… The United States, which had only small numbers of C.I.A. officers in Libya during the tumult of the rebellion, provided little oversight of the arms shipments.”

This is especially troubling given the recent reports of Libyan arms being funneled through the Sinai peninsula to Gaza.

The fallout from the misbegotten Libya mission is well known by now, but the implications for Syria are more interesting. As regular readers of this blog will remember, we have suggested arming Syrian rebels:

This is now all about trying to prevent the worst rather than promoting the best. It means arming people, many of whom we don’t like and who don’t like us, to reduce the likelihood of a dangerous increase in the power of people who consider themselves at war with us and our friends.

The dangers are real, and in both Libya and Syria it seems that too many arms have fallen into the wrong hands. A major problem in both cases seems to be the role of Arab money from the Gulf. Many Gulf Arabs see the conflagration in Syria as part of a broader war (and war is the right word) between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam to control the Middle East. While they may deplore the excesses and radicalism of some groups, on the whole they see the war against the Shia as a way of consolidating the role of the Arab royal houses on the Gulf. They can win religious legitimacy by promoting the faith.

The current anti-Iran alliance between the Gulf monarchies and the United States is a bit like the Cold War cooperation against the Soviet Union. Back then, it was Afghanistan, and the Americans, Pakistanis, and the Gulf monarchies cooperated against the Soviet Union. With the help of the Pakistanis, who fought tooth and nail any American efforts to control who got the money, radical groups were the chief beneficiaries of the arms and aid.

The United States wants Assad out as much as the Gulf Arabs do, and we are just as interested in checking Iran as they are, but we have very different ideas about what should come next in Syria. In Afghanistan we outsourced control over who got aid to Pakistan and the Gulf, with results that are all too evident. In Syria we didn’t face the same kind of blockage that Pakistan and the ISI imposed in Afghanistan, but because we never managed to find a group we liked that was competent and reliable enough to back to the hilt, aid from the Gulf (combined with fighting prowess on the ground) seems to have had the effect of strengthening more radical forces against more moderate ones.

It’s not at all clear that there was anything we could have done to build up the “good guys” in Syria, but the effect of our policy has been that the Gulf Arabs have had a bigger hand in arming and therefore shaping the Syrian resistance than we have done, while the length and bitterness of the conflict has further reinforced radicals and radicalism.

All told, a grim situation, and not one that bodes particularly well for the future. There may be a ray of light in reports that the French (with a history of colonial and post colonial ties to the region and a desire to work closely with rich Arabs today) have been active on the ground and in weapons distribution in Syria.

But even if things go as badly as it sometimes looks that they will, American policy in the Middle East has long been reasonably successful in safeguarding our vital interests in the teeth of a very hostile political climate. Post Assad and post Mubarak, we may be back to more of the same.

Interesting times.

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